How color and texture created the tone behind Taika Waititi's Jojo Rabbit.
Perspective. It’s a subject we frequently discuss at No Film School. Having a unique one through which you tell your story can make all the difference.
In Jojo Rabbit, writer-director Taika Waititi explores World War II through the eyes of a 10-year old German boy named Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis). Jojo is completely infatuated with all things Nazi – so much so, he has an imaginary friend in Adolf Hitler (played by the Waititi himself).
Rooted in Christine Leunen’s book “Caging Skies,” the adapted screenplay takes place near the end of the war. Jojo lives with his single mother (Scarlett Johansson) who happens to be hiding a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) inside their home. After finding her, Jojo is torn between his devotion to Hitler and the courage to open his mind.
The story unfolds through Jojo’s eyes, a perspective Waititi and cinematographer Mihai Mălaimare detailed through a motivated camera and a vivid color palette that you wouldn’t normally expect in depictions of that period.
“Color evolved in an interesting way,” says the cinematographer whose work includes The Master and Sleepless. “Sometimes you wait to hear ideas from a director, but on this project, we shared a similar instinct where we didn’t want to shy away from color.” Rediscovering old color footage of WWII-era Germany during prep altered their view, giving a new perspective in dimension and vibrancy. They also combed through images of children during the period keying in on photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson – photographs that documented the playfulness of children during WWII.
They also embraced color in showing the passage of time. As the events in the film grow darker, the colors follow. “We realized using so much color from the start we could shift the tone later on when things become more bleak,” says Mălaimare. Finding the palette was a collaboration among Waititi, production designer Ra Vincent and costume designer Mayes Rubeo. In prep, Mălaimare dialed it in further creating a look with DIT Eli Berg – the two have worked together for over a decade.
Initial tests were an examination in tone and texture. The camera, lenses, and aspect ratio were also explored with the period in mind. Mălaimare landed on the ARRI Alexa SXT pairing the Super 35 digital camera with Hawk V-Lite 1.3x anamorphics and spherical Vantage One T1 lenses. “The anamorphic lenses gave us the color saturation we wanted and the skin tones had a velvet quality to them where they feel alive but not overly cinematic.”
“The anamorphic lenses gave us the color saturation we wanted and the skin tones had a velvet quality to them where they feel alive but not overly cinematic.”
Finding the right aspect ratio took further consideration. “We initially thought of 1.33. There’s something to it – it’s a very European aspect ratio that we both loved. But since we had many scenes with two people talking in smaller spaces, we didn’t want the audience to feel we were trying to harden the frame,” says Mălaimare.
They also tested 1.66 and 2.40 but the latter felt “overly cinematic” and “trying too much”. They eventually landed at 1.85. “It felt perfect for us. You can feel the frame and keep a certain amount of distance between the characters and camera as well,” he says.
In building the sets – which were mainly constructed at Prague’s Barrandov Studios – a concern for Mălaimare was lighting and shaping what would be seen outside the windows of Jojo’s home and other locations. The cinematographer created an almost burned-out look where you could barely see anything through the windows. Doing so created a subliminal and distinct visual separation between the inside and outside worlds. “We carried the look into our practical locations as well so it didn’t feel like a different texture,” Mălaimare says. “There’s a scene inside the Hitler Youth Office with Jojo which is a real location. We dirtied and fogged up the windows the same way we did in studio. It’s a bit overexposed other than the tree textures but the look felt right for us from the beginning.”
For the hidden room where Elsa hides, they placed tiny vents on the floor that allowed light to shine through so the audience would know immediately if it was day or night. When the sun did set, lighting the tiny room was a task in mood and shadow. “It was our tribute to Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon,” says Mălaimare.
“I think when there are certain restrictions you can come up with better solutions than you hope for.”
They shot scenes between Jojo and Elsa using the Vantage lenses at T1.3/T.14 and candles or gas lamps as the key light. Tiny 5-watt LEDs filled the actors’ faces. Though it was a built set where they could move certain panels to bring in multiple cameras, the cinematographer embraced the limitations of the confined space. “I think when there are certain restrictions you can come up with better solutions than you hope for.”
In approaching the frame, they went a classical route choosing dolly shots and steadicam while ignoring handheld camera moves. They also limited storyboarding and created rules – one being to never choose to wide of a focal length. "When we had intimate scenes between two people we tried some wide shots but it never felt right. We ended up going tighter and tighter as we went,” says Mălaimare.
Production went to Žatec and Úštěk in the Czech Republic to create Jojo’s fictional hometown of Falkenheim. To assist production design in crafting the Nazi propaganda seen in its streets, the cinematographer researched and used cameras true to the era to shoot stills. Specifically, a mid-1930s Contax III rangefinder camera. “What’s interesting about using something like that is not only is the experience going to be different in how you frame it, but what you get in a finished product is going to be completely different than a modern lens.”
The climactic battle sequence was shot using three different locations starting in a studio before moving to practical locations. The scene is total chaos with tanks roaming, gunshots firing, and bombs going off. Jojo is running rampant through the streets trying to save himself and the lives of his friends. Mălaimare keyed in on the transitions to match the texture and feel of the different locations. Knowing its difficulty, this section was the only part of the film the director and cinematographer storyboarded.
Looking back, Mălaimare credits the success to the common language he shared with the director and crew. “The process was a great collaboration with everyone including the actors. We were able to rehearse scenes and see what the actors were doing and develop ideas from it. To me, that’s how you get better compositions and better ideas overall. When it’s a collaboration among everyone.”
If you're interested in other in-depth talks with cinematographers we recently spoke with Roger Deakins about how he and Sam Mendes pulled off 1917.